Party Like It’s 1999: 10 Old Tech Ideas That Are New Again

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Now, of course, every major bank lets customers conduct transactions online. And a new crop of Web startups has sprung forth, ranging in focus from financial services for teens (Bobber Interactive) to group payments (WePay) to online money transfer (peerTransfer) to simplified personal financial management (, acquired by Intuit).

6. B2B Exchanges (Ariba vs. Alibaba)

The field of business-to-business commerce exchanges—connecting corporate buyers and suppliers of goods—was certainly hot in 2000. Ariba, the Silicon Valley e-commerce and spending management company, was part of this early trend. Yet by 2002, the field was dying, in part because the technical networks required were difficult to set up. Ariba was able to survive with other products, and today it is reviving e-commerce exchange in the Internet cloud. Meanwhile, China-based, which started in 1999, also has weathered the storm to become one of the world’s biggest B2B trading platforms for small companies. IBM’s recent $1.4 billion acquisition of AT&T’s Sterling Commerce also helps validate the sector.

7. E-book readers (Rocket eBook vs. Amazon Kindle)

Another classic example of a great technology at the wrong time. NuvoMedia released the Rocket eBook reader in 1998. It did almost everything the Kindle does, except for wireless downloads, though it was also thicker and heavier. But there was not enough of a market for such a device at the time, and it was discontinued after five years. Now, with the advent of E Ink, smaller batteries, wireless delivery, and the whole digital book ecosystem, the Kindle is Amazon’s bestselling product, and has spawned many similar devices. Whether it will survive the iPad is another question.

8. The Web on TV (Microsoft WebTV vs. Boxee, Hulu, Roku, etc.)

Around 1999, a major battle was shaping up between Microsoft, AOL, and others over delivering Internet access via TV sets. Microsoft had acquired WebTV Networks and was going full-steam into home entertainment. Two years later, the field was dead. After the dot-com bust, consumers didn’t care about browsing the Web on their TVs. Now, with the rise of online video and fast broadband networks, the idea of bridging the gap between TV and the Internet is alive and well, thanks to companies like Boxee, Roku, Hulu, Netflix, and ZeeVee (and don’t forget Apple, Google, and now, Amazon).

9. On-demand delivery and personal services (Kozmo and Webvan vs. TaskRabbit and Thumbtack)

Grocery delivery service Webvan and its lesser known cousin Kozmo, which offered 1-hour delivery service of retail goods in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, flamed out even more brightly than most of their dot-com brethren. Webvan squandered more than $1 billion on vehicles and warehouses before going bankrupt in 2001, and venture investors lost $250 million on Kozmo. Yet Webvan competitor Peapod is still around, and now there’s a new and promising crop of Web startups like TaskRabbit (formerly RunMyErrand) and Thumbtack, where consumers can go online and commission people to pick up their groceries, cook meals, walk their dog, remodel their kitchen, or do almost anything else. The difference: today’s services are merely clearinghouses—crowdsourcing the real work to eager part-timers or contractors—and have few overhead expenses.

10. Nanotech (Nanosys vs. A123Systems)

This last one is a bit more speculative than the rest. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that “nanotech”—which last had a good reputation around 2004, at least in business circles—has reinvented itself in the form of advanced materials and energy companies. While Silicon Valley’s Nanosys is still alive and kicking six years after its canceled IPO, another crop of companies, led by Boston’s A123Systems (which started in 2001), has used nanotech to develop new kinds of batteries, energy storage, and solar power technologies (MiaSolé, Innovalight, Nanosolar), which are just starting to take off as the field has matured. In the long run, those might turn out to be the most important innovations in this list.

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • One of my favorite VC quotes is “Early is a synonym for Wrong.” Don’t forget Amazon Fresh in the shopping reborn category!

  • David Pitkin

    I have to admit that I think Glassbook not Rocketbook would be a better 10 years ago E-Book. I did work there but that technology is still kicking around at Adobe.

  • I’d add local communities, journalism to this list: In 1999, Microsoft’s Sidewalk sold to CitySearch and this year you’ve got Everyblock,, and Patch reinventing that experience.

  • Susan

    I’d also consider Social media – remember Six Degrees??

  • Dan Greenberg

    OK Please let me state the obvious:

    Time-sharing vs. the cloud

    And if we want it to go back just one decade instead of 3, then “IBM On Demand vs. the cloud.” Remember those cool IBM print ads (yes, I said PRINT ads) pitching computing as the Nth utility after water, electricity, etc.?